Radical Candor – Summary and Insights

Below are some of my key takeaways from reading the book, Radical Candor by Kim Scott. If you are interested in my detailed notes from this book, please email me.

Radical Candor
Radical Candor

Synopsis:

A brief synopsis of the book is reprinted below from Amazon.

“Kim Scott was a highly successful leader at Google before decamping to Apple, where she developed and taught a management class. Since the original publication of Radical Candor in 2017, Scott has earned international fame with her vital approach to effective leadership and co-founded the Radical Candor executive education company, which helps companies put the book’s philosophy into practice.

Radical Candor is about caring personally and challenging directly, about soliciting criticism to improve your leadership and also providing guidance that helps others grow. It focuses on praise but doesn’t shy away from criticism―to help you love your work and the people you work with.”

Insights:

What is Radical Candor?

Kim defines the role of management as “guiding a team to achieve results.” From this definition, she defines the three key responsibilities of a manager:

  • Guidance: to create a culture of guidance (praise and criticism) that will keep everyone moving in the right direction
  • Team: to understand what motivates each person on your team well enough to avoid burnout or boredom and keep the team cohesive
  • Results: drive results collaboratively

People work in teams based on the belief that a collaborative team can accomplish more than a single individual. The goal of radical candor is to enable individuals to develop strong personal relationships which will increase the team’s collaboration and innovation, enabling the team to achieve impressive results. In order to develop these relationships, managers must “care personally” and “challenge directly” with their teams in order to build trust and show the team that they care about them as human beings.

Finding Meaning in Work

As a manager, it’s important to get to know each person on your team at a personal level in order to understand their desires and motivations. Common guidance pushes people to follow their passion when searching for employment opportunities. However, it’s not always possible for every employee to be in a role that they are deeply passionate about. As Kim points out, some managers may think it’s their job to provide purpose and develop a sense of passion in their employees. This puts unnecessary pressure on both parties.

Multiple research studies and books have described the value of having employees who find their work meaningful. According to Google’s Project Aristotle research, when employees find meaning in their work, they work more effectively. Ray Dalio, the founder of the hedge fund investment company Bridgewater, writes in his book Principles that meaningful work not only is a critical component to professional success but also personal happiness. So what should a manager do?

Managers need to get to know their employees well enough to understand how each one derives meaning from their work and how their work fits into their life goals. Based on that understanding, the manager can create the conditions necessary to enable each employee to find meaning in their own way. Kim provides a guide for a series of career conversations that managers can have with their employees. These conversations encourage the employee to describe their life aspirations outside of work. The manager and the employee then try to refine the role and identify opportunities that move the employee closer to their personal goals and achieving their dreams. This connection between personal goals and work helps the employee derive meaning, and ultimately become more productive.

Growth vs Stability

Beyond understanding an employee’s long term vision for their life, the manager should also understand what growth trajectory each person is on at any given time.

Kim describes teams as consisting of both growth and stability of people. Growth employees are on a steep growth trajectory. They are highly ambitious and are constantly seeking new opportunities. Stability employees may be ambitious outside of work, but they are happy in their current role and wouldn’t want a new set of responsibilities if it takes them away from their expertise. They are the backbone of a strong team.

A cohesive team consists of a mix and the manager should value both. Not everyone will be able to get the next promotion and the team won’t be cohesive if they are all pushing for the next promotion. People can transition between the different categories as their life situation changes.

Despite being on different growth trajectories, these employees are high performers. In order to prevent boring the growth employees or burning out the stability employees, managers need to understand which trajectory each employee thinks they are on and align employees with opportunities based on that trajectory.

Providing Feedback

In addition to developing personal relationships with employees, managers also need to provide feedback. Kim had some tactical advice for providing both positive and negative feedback.

First, she points out that the more specific a manager can be with feedback the better. This helps the employee do more of what’s good and less of what’s bad and to see the difference. She provides the situation, behavior, impact framework for both praise and criticism.

  • the situation you saw
  • the behavior (what the person did)
  • the impact you observed

She also noted that the power of guidance fades over time. If you want too long, even a week, the employee can’t fix the problem or build upon the success because they can’t remember all the details of the incident.

Lastly, Kim notes that “the clarity of your guidance gets measures at the other person’s ear, not at your mouth.” It’s important to react to the other person’s emotions when giving feedback. Sometimes they will be upset. It’s important to acknowledge the other person’s pain and offer to fix the problem. Kim suggests something similar to

It seems like I’ve upset you/pissed you off/frustrated you. That’s not what I wanted to do. I’m trying to help you. How can I say this in a better way?

In the end, Kim says, caring personally about people even as you challenge them will build the best relationships of your career.

Responding to Criticism

I come from a military background and there are a lot of skills and behaviors that I developed which translate well to the corporate world. An article in the Harvard Business Review about CEOs with military backgrounds states

They are trained for high-stakes positions at a young age and are sometimes thrown into those roles with no warning. Many are driven by a desire to serve, and success demands working well with others, resilience, and mental agility.

But what are some negative traits or habits that don’t translate well? As a Marine officer, I was used to acting on orders given to me by my leadership and expecting my team to carry out my instructions as I directed. Now there are situations that require strict obedience to orders and more broadly, the military favors a collaborative approach to problem-solving. However, being openly criticized by subordinates is rare and usually viewed as insubordination.

Given that context, and the general imposter syndrome that comes along with any new role, I was initially fearful of being challenged in public by my teammates when I switched from the military to a role in the technology sector. Kim states that authoritarian bosses tend to be weak persuaders since they aren’t used to having to explain the decision or their logic. They fail to establish their credibility because they expect people to do what they say simply because they are in charge.

Clearly, this isn’t the proper way to handle criticism and doesn’t build a cohesive team. This may be a habit that works in a limited amount of scenarios in the military, but it’s not helpful in the corporate world. It may be natural to want to repress dissent, regardless of one’s background, but it’s not productive in the long run. Instead, encouraging respectful criticism and having a positive reaction to it can actually establish credibility as a strong leader. Kim even states that the first step to developing a culture of radical candor is to solicit criticism before providing praise and criticism.